A question I’m often asked about fostering is quite a controversial one and I’m always careful how I answer. It usually leads to a debate and as I try to explain to people, there is no right or wrong answer. The question is: Which is better – fostering with a Local Authority (LA) or with an Independent Foster Agency (IFA)?
I have experience with both; I first started fostering with a LA and when I moved completely out of the area, I met the LA near me and based on two meetings and several telephone conversations, I decided to look at IFA’s. My experience with the LA in the north was positive and I had an excellent relationship with my social worker and the Safeguarding Team. Looking back, I didn’t really know what support was out there and if I had a problem, I just assumed I was expected to resolve it myself. In short, I didn’t have a lot of interaction with my social worker but when I did it usually went well. I fostered Graham from the age of 13 to the day of his 16th birthday and I often wonder what more I could have done to help him stay past his own predetermined deadline. It wasn’t a surprise, Graham informed me from the very start that it wasn’t us but as soon as he was legally able to leave, he would. It saddened me as he ended up in minor trouble with the law along with his older sister and ended up sleeping rough for a while.
With these years of experience behind me, I approached one of the local authorities near me in my new town and whilst I wasn’t disappointed, I decided to investigate IFA. Where to start? I had very little information and only Google to help, so I found a list of agencies and contacted them in order of their Ofsted ranking. The first one I looked at was Nexus Fostering and I approached them as they had an Outstanding rating and from my first ‘phone call to their enquiry team, I was made to feel welcome. I wasn’t coming to fostering without any experience so although I had a list of questions I wanted answers to, they were more about Nexus than fostering generally. Every question I asked was given careful thought and I was never made to feel rushed or pushed into making an appointment.
I went through the application procedure, the mandatory (and in my view totally invaluable) Skills to Foster course, the compulsory interview and assessment process, completed the Form F alongside my assigned social worker, sat before panel and was officially a foster carer along with Hubby with an IFA. It was lovely to be a foster carer again, however, it wasn’t until I signed up for courses provided by Nexus that I started to see some major differences. I was offered and attended courses on all sorts of subjects provided by independent trainers and started to meet other foster carers in a support group. This had never happened with my previous LA so having a network of other carers on hand to ask questions and share best practices was a new experience.
My first placement with Nexus was Michael, a lovely young person, who had a variety of medical conditions leaving him with mental health issues and some low level physical disabilities. Michael was full of life and was always happy and whilst I knew I wouldn’t have him for long as he was moving to a foster carer nearer to the special school he went to, he was also prone to mood swings and temper tantrums. He was a large young man and being with him was emotional and physically tiring. He was also prone to behaving in a socially inappropriate sexual manner when in public so my guard was always up to well-meaning but often offensive members of the public.
My social worker, Rosie, visited me every two weeks without fail and I have no idea how I would have coped without that support. Although she was there to offer advice about his education, medication and other concerns that came up occasionally, she mainly just listened to me let off steam or to put our heads together to find a way to get Michael to eat something else besides Dairylea Triangles and chicken nuggets. Over the years, we’ve had a number of children but the one thing that has never changed is the support we receive, along with training by industry approved trainers.
Other things to consider are why the local authority have approached an agency to foster a child as opposed to finding a carer within their own bank of foster carers. It could simple be that they have no vacancies and no local authority carer is available or it could be that the child or young person in question is considered ‘difficult to place’. Being difficult to place immediately raises alarm bells but in my experience the children that have come to me with that label have been no different to any other child I have looked after. M, our 14 year old had this label when she came to us and she is nothing more than a typical teenager; prone to occasionally slamming a door and refusing to do homework. Other children with this label have disabilities which may daunt some people but again, with the appropriate support and training, looking after a disabled child soon becomes second nature.
So, to answer the question, in MY experience, I prefer fostering with an IFA. I am a member of a monitored online fostering forum which offers foster carers support from each other and a place where we can share experiences and problems as well as seek advice. It offers membership to LA and IFA carers and this question comes up a lot. There are foster carers with 30+ years’ experience who swear by their LA and the support and training they are given and vice versa for IFA foster.
Whenever I’m asked, I am always honest and recommend Nexus not only for the support, training and Outstanding Ofsted rating but for the comradeship, feeling and being treated as a professional by everyone in the agency, including higher management and the ability to have a voice that is heard.